While the Opera House was drowning in the agitated mania of Oslo's teenage Justin Bieber fans last Wednesday night, a few dozen literature lovers gathered in the basement of Oslo's Litteraturhuset to see someone else. David Vann
, author of Legend of a Suicide
and Caribou Island
, was visiting to talk about the latter book, most recently translated into Norwegian.
Turning the last page of Caribou Island the week before, I'd felt utterly flattened, almost distraught. The story follows the crumbling of a thirty-year marriage. Gary and Irene are building a cabin on an island in Alaska; as they struggle through that process, they learn how far apart they've grown and how much they have left to lose. It is one of the saddest, least hopeful books I've ever read. That the novel elicited such a strong reaction speaks to the high quality of the writing, but ultimately, I was feeling dark and wary as I took my seat on Wednesday. I had no idea what to expect.
So, it was a pleasant surprise when Vann took the floor and opened with his Bieber impersonation for the audience.
He stepped away from the chair and microphone set up for the interview and took a pop artist's stance, as though on stage: one foot in front of the other, torso leaned forward. He then proceeded to rock out.
"Dead on, right?" he asked. The audience laughed. Vann reddened and returned to his seat.
Norwegian journalist Martin Grüner Larsen
led the interview and first brought up Legend of a Suicide
"Why did you choose to write it as a novel? Why not a memoir?" Larsen asked.
Legend of a Suicide, winner of the 2007 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, is the fractured tale of a man's suicide as told several different ways. Every version is slightly different, a variety of vantage points and writing styles. But the suicide in the story was real. Vann's father took his own life in 1980; that heartbreak for Vann was the jumping off point for what would eventually be a successful literary debut. Vann doesn't hide this fact from his readers; the American edition includes a note confirming it on the inside cover.
"There's no true story in my family," Vann explained. When asked, every family member had something different to say or add about his father's death. For Vann, the only answer was to give his unconscious a free reign in the writing.
"To make the ugly and meaningless beautiful and meaningful is what the unconscious wants," he said. "My family doesn't understand why the beautiful has to be monstrous; [but Legend of a Suicide] is some monstrous version of the true story."
Vann began writing Legend of a Suicide when he was still a student in a writing program. The manuscript was rejected by several publishers. Ultimately, a discouraged Vann gave up and pursued a career as a sailing captain and a boat builder.
"My brain wasn't old enough to do a novel," he said. Only several years later did he return to his original project and find success.
Larsen asked whether writing Legend of a Suicide was something akin to therapy.
Vann nodded. "Yes, I mean, I feel better!"
"But the difference between writing and therapy is that writing has an aesthetic goal... transformation, trying to find something beautiful," he said. Then he continued, "Therapy isn't beautiful."
Thus, the tone of the evening was set. Vann couldn't help vying for the laugh at every turn. He giggled through many of his own quips, gesticulating with frantic hands, rolling his eyes around in his head.